By Tim Macartney-Snape
Back in 1929 New Zealand men were men and they had better things to do than make sheep nervous. Like founding a ski field bang in the middle of the main divide of the southern alps. Just getting there was no easy task, a combo of steam train, buggy ride and stiff hike weeding out society skiers from serious schussers. Flash forward 83 seasons and it’s still a bugger of a hike in, the only lifts are infamous nutcracker rope tows, and still no cafe skiers in sight. something else hasn’t changed either, the amazing amount of big mountain terrain on offer, limited only be your fitness, ability and prevailing conditions that dump an average 11m a season. Tim Macartney-Snape was there for the Black Diamond/Chill NZ Freeride Championships last winter.
Why on earth would you go to a ski resort that could only be reached by walking up a steep snow covered mountainside? And where the only accommodation is in a mountain hut with bunks? And where there are only three short lifts, with a pre-requisite of use which requires you to wear a harness enabling you to attach yourself to the lift, which is just a rope, using a hand-held clamp resembling an elongated nutcracker?
Good questions, but they simply beg more elaboration when you hear some consider it one of the better freeride destinations on the planet.
Well, the most compelling reason is not because those people are idiots, they actually have a point because Temple Basin (TB) has that old real estate cliché – position, position, position – in abundance.
TB nestles high above the Arthur’s Pass road, just on the west of the main divide of new Zealand’s Southern Alps under the shadow of Mounts Phipps, Temple and Cassidy. The terrain below these craggy peaks is varied in aspect and tends towards the steep end of skiable. Being closer to the West Coast, it gets more snow, but as there are still a couple of high ranges between it and the coast it doesn’t suffer too much from the dreaded West Coast fog. The panorama from anywhere in the area is full on, spectacular high mountain scenery – a feeling enhanced by the fact that you’ve gotten there under your own steam. To the west, across the deep valley that links Christchurch to the West Coast, rises the glaciated Mount Rolleston, the northernmost of New Zealand’s truly alpine peaks.
The other reason, partly answered above, is the skiing on offer. Adding further to the quirkiness of TB is that to get away from the beginner terrain, and to the majority of ‘in area’ terrain, you must take a hike from one lift to the next, so this place isn’t for the lazy skier and that’s the beauty of it. Even the ‘in area’ at TB sports a plethora of unmarked cliffs and any drop-off needs to be well considered before dropping in.
Put a little more effort in by venturing ‘out of area’ and the rewards are great and sometimes frightening – a multitude of hard-earned, uncrowded lines await the adventurous (and energetic) skier who’s willing to bite the bullet of hardship by lugging a pack, shovel, avalanche beacon and, depending on your confidence (or lack of), an ice axe.
I’d long heard of TB and for ages vowed that one day I would break my drought of visiting the mountains across the Tasman – in place since just after my baptism into mountaineering there as a student, when I subsequently discovered much bigger mountains, much further away. The opportunity to return came as an invitation from my friend and colleague, Ewan McCaffery, Black Diamond’s Kiwi representative and sponsor of the Temple Basin Big Mountain Comp held on the first weekend in September. The event is a celebration and promotion of modern freeriding in a mountain setting.
Since it was also an opportunity to try out some of Black Diamond’s latest skis, I invited Brendan Harris along, the most qualified ski enthusiast at Sea to Summit. Also joining us was ‘double D’ Dave Drulard from Black Diamond, Salt Lake City.
Loaded up with the latest samples, we headed west, leaving the war-zone like setting of Christchurch and oh–so-swiftly, we were in the mountains passing by one club ski field turnoff after the next until suddenly we were over the pass and pulling onto what in Australia would barely qualify as a fire trail. Ewan eased his Prado up through some melting drifts before the track deteriorated and we began the stiff little hike up. DD needed reassuring that there was indeed a ski field up there, and I have to say I too was in mild disbelief.
It felt good to be breathing deep cold mountain air, and looking up fresh snow on the rocks augured well for skiing conditions.
What looked a little unpromising from the outside turned on the inside into a cosy, surprisingly spacious and very convivial mountain chalet – unpretentious, functional and very Kiwi, the food homely and satisfying, and the company very friendly and young in attitude.
Needless to say it was youth that dominated the competition over the next couple of days. Event organiser Chill Pass’s Stu Waddell, jack-in-the-box like was everywhere, and seemed to be single handedly making it all happen while the rest of us got a taste of the skiing on offer. A bruised shin bone from an ill-advised long skate boarding foray caused my skiing to be far from anything to write home about, but bowls and chutes of powdery snow kept us all in the hunt for the perfect run and the fabled rope tow kept us on our toes.
After the competition runs of the first day, locals Jim Young and Gordy Menzies offered to show us a taste of a couple of ‘boot up’ runs, so we jumped at the chance and soon we found our lungs burning and our bodies overheating – we were as good as mountaineering with plenty of air beneath our boots but firm snow to punch into.
Our first descent was down a west-facing chute on Temple Buttress – it would have been epic in softer conditions, but all we found was an iron hard crust. On tele gear I chickened out and sideslipped until it softened. Jim, also on teles, put me to shame as he faultlessly but conservatively cranked his way down. Next was a long plug up Little Phipps, a peak of very alpine appearance. On top, the young lads pulled out cans of beer for welcome refreshment and a chance to take in the incredible view.
You want to get your line right on the south side of Little Phipps – muff it and it’s quite likely that you’ll slide over a bluff or two. With our local knowledge we did OK, found powdery leads, but above a narrow curving chute I opted out, jumped a little step and skied around an open face to watch the others skid out on powder hidden ice – at least the soft snow below the gully held their tumbles.
The next day dawned bright, clear and frosty, any snow that had fully faced the sun sported a hard crust so it was a lazy start – just as well because the previous day had been a big one for my first full day of skiing for the season. Brendan and I went for a little ski mountaineering up Mt Cassidy, and reaped the rewards of our effort with a long relaxed run back to base.
The final runs for the comp were held after mid-day and as spectators got comfortable in the viewing area opposite Bill’s Basin, Ewan started his commentary in his broad Glaswegian. The most jaw-dropping run was by local Jeremy Smith and it clinched him the ‘Sick Bird’ award. He took a bold line and launched off one of the biggest drops. Had he not suffered a double ejection on landing he could well have taken first place, but that went to ‘super-grom’ George Pingelly for his very fast, superbly controlled technical lines and frequent air. Alex Brook took out the women’s title because she made it all look so easy with her impeccable fluidity.
Saturday night was a big one – where else but in NZ would a band walk up a mountain to play a gig?
To shrug off the big night, to finish off the long weekend and try a final pair of Black Diamond demo skis, Jim led another foray up Little Phipps and we skied a direct line down the south face that links two well-shaded, cliff lined gullies that harboured good powdery snow from top to bottom.
I’ll be back, not to compete but to watch, ski and soak up the craic that is unique to this remote slice of skiing heaven, and if you fancy yourself as anything of a freeride skier or boarder why not sign up and join the fun?
[the ticket] temple basin
local knowledge it’s a club field, so don’t expect or demand snappy commercial levels of service – they will attend to enquiries & bookings as quickly and efficiently as possible. Same applies when staying/skiing here, a pitch in and enjoy attitude is the only attitude worth having.
dont miss apart from the terrain and whole experience, the avalanche programs run by New Zealand Snow Safety Insititure are highly recommended; weekend courses from $NZD 520, details www.nzssi.com
School Holiday weeks with lessons & activities are exceptional value, start 1, 8, 15 July and 9, 23 September $760 adult, $495 child. Line Junior Freeski Comp 6-7 August, Black Diamond/Chill Big Mountain Comp happens 2-4 September. The night skiing, especially at full moon, is a classic ‘only in Enzed’ experience.
boookings/more info contact the club templebasin.co.nz
Snow 11m snowfall (top) per year; season July – early October
Lifts 3 nutcracker rope tows (belt hire $NZD 5 day, $15 week)
Tickets (2012) day $NZD 68, season pass (buy before 1/6/12) $NZD 320
Facilities cafe; accommodation packages include all meals, licensed bar
Accommodation bunk lodges $NZD 95 day with meals; lifts/meals 7 night/6 days $NZD 760
Airport Christchurch 150km, @ 2 hours, plus 45 – 60 min hike (goods lift for gear) from 4km past Arthur’s Pass. Daily shuttle atomictravel.co.nz